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HomeLifestyleHuman InterestHeroes Among Us: The Heart and Soul of Volunteer Firefighters

Heroes Among Us: The Heart and Soul of Volunteer Firefighters

In February 2023, the Charlevoix Township and East Jordan Fire Departments allowed us the pleasure of capturing them during a controlled burn training exercise. The pictures throughout this profile and in the included gallary are from that training. Below is the video of this burn on our YouTube channel.

We also extend our heartfelt appreciation to two departments for their insights and conversations that contributed to the early development of this profile.  Chief John Kramer of the Monitor Township Fire Department in Bay County, and especially to Monitor volunteer firefighter Paul Guzdzial; and Chief John Cupps from the Harbor Springs Area Fire Department. We appreciate your contributions to the development of this profile. As they say, it takes a village. Thank you. 

I have no ambition in this world but one, and that is to be a fireman. The position may in the eyes of some appear to be a lowly one; but those who know the work which a fireman has to do believe his is a noble calling … Our proudest moment is to save lives. Under the impulse of such thoughts the nobility of the occupation thrills us and stimulates us to deeds of daring, even of supreme sacrific.

Edward F. Croker
Chief of the Fire Department of New York (1899-1911) and a leader in fire prevention in his 1910 farewell address to the National Fire Academy

Across the state of Michigan, from the bottom of the mitten to the tip of the UP, thousands of men and women are united in unwavering service to their communities. They are ordinary citizens who balance the responsibilities of their jobs and families with their commitment to safeguarding their towns. As the first line of defense in emergencies, their work is often demanding, dangerous and unpredictable, yet they selflessly answer the call to action when the alarm sounds. They are volunteer firefighters.

Indeed, most of the firefighters in Michigan – and in the United States – are volunteers. Of the 972 departments in Michigan registered with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), 62.2 percent are all volunteer units and 23.4 percent are mostly volunteer, according to survey data from the NFPA. In the U.S., volunteers comprise 65 percent of all firefighters, with most small and mid-sized communities typically served by all- or mostly all-volunteer departments.

Since 1736, when Benjamin Franklin helped found Philadelphia’s Union Fire Company – the first organized all-volunteer fire fighting group in the Colonies – courageous volunteers have been risking their lives to battle the flames that threaten homes and businesses. While the technology of fighting fires has evolved from Franklin’s humble bucket brigade to today’s highly trained men and women equipped with million-dollar fire engines, the same dedication and bravery that motivated those early volunteers remains a constant.

Today’s volunteer firefighters not only risk their lives to extinguish structure fires, but they are also the first responders to traffic accidents and other emergencies. They face dangerous conditions to rescue victims trapped in icy waters. They are on the front lines to help with floods and other natural disasters. Many volunteer fire departments also provide emergency medical services. Members also perform numerous non-emergency jobs like offering fire prevention education to school children and helping with road closures and community events.

What inspires these selfless volunteers to run toward situations that others would instinctively avoid? Live. Love. Local. Michigan. sat down with members of the East Jordan Fire Department and the Charlevoix Township Fire Department to learn more about what it’s like to be a volunteer firefighter and why they choose to serve.

Glen Thorman, chief of the East Jordan Fire Department, began his service as an emergency medical technician in 1982. With many of his friends in the fire service, he decided to move from EMS to the volunteer fire department.

“I do it to help,” Thorman says. “I get personal satisfaction helping people and knowing that I’ve helped somebody out on one of the worst days they’ve had in their life. It makes you want to do it more, it makes you want to put more into it because you’re getting something back out of it, too.”

Thorman, who works at Bergmann Marine, acknowledges that the commitment volunteers make to the fire department can be a disruption to normal life.

“My priorities are God, my family, my regular job, and the fire department,” Thorman says. “The fire department always interrupts all those things. So, when the tones go off everything else stops in your life and you go help.”

Kathy and Tim Drenth are married members of the East Jordan department, each with full-time jobs with East Jordan Public Schools. Spouses and family members serving in the same department is a common occurrence within volunteer departments nationwide.

“We chose to do it as a family before we were even married, when we were dating,” Kathy Drenth says. “We both started with EMS.”

A lifeguard in high school with CPR and first aid training, Kathy Drenth was just 17 when she decided to pursue EMS training following her grandmother’s serious fall outside a local store.

“I came to her and there were a bunch of people around and I was amazed at how many people were saying ‘sit her up, no don’t sit her up, hold her head, no don’t hold her head, lift her feet, no don’t lift her feet, give her some water.’ What freaked me out was every adult there had a different cuckoo thing they wanted to do to treat her,” she recalls. “And even with just my first aid training I knew they were all crazy. There was nothing they were recommending that I wanted them to do for her. That’s what prompted me to move forward with EMS training.”

When the Drenths’ children were young, the couple had to decide who would answer the alarm when it sounded.

“She took all the OB calls, and I took everything else,” Tim Drenth says.

And the calls for help don’t typically come between 9 and 5. “I like to help people. You meet people at their lowest spot and you’re there to help save their family, their pets, their possessions,” Tim Drenth says. “It’s tough to be out all night long and get up and function the next day. You don’t get the recommended eight hours of sleep because you might be back out in another hour for something else.”

The Drenth children, like the families of volunteer firefighters everywhere, are part of an essential support network for those who serve.

 “When the pager goes off, our daughter says ‘can I do anything, can I make cookies,’ because that’s what she knows, that’s what she’s always done,” Kathy Drenth says.

For East Jordan firefighter Sienna Wenz – whose husband is also a member of the department – the desire to volunteer was sparked by her firefighter father and a local female firefighter she admired.

“The amount of happiness they got from helping others showed me that I should join that profession and receive the same happiness while helping others,” Wenz says.

Wenz, who joined the volunteer firefighters while still in high school, has served for more than 20 years. A scuba diver with water rescue certification, Wenz is one of the younger members of the 22-member East Jordan department.

“I love doing my job,” Wenz says. “I just like helping people and knowing that I did my best to help them in whatever situation I was called to because it makes my heart happy.”

Greg Seese, assistant chief of the Charlevoix Township Fire Department, serves alongside his youngest son. His wife was previously a member of the department, too. 

“Even though you get sleep deprived, you get upset, you lose family time, but it’s our choice,” Seese says. “It’s a satisfaction knowing that I did everything I could to help the situation, no matter the outcome. And not all of them are good.”

It’s those tough calls with bad outcomes that weigh heavy on first responders. Dealing with the aftermath of a fatal fire or car accident can leave firefighters shaken to the core. The East Jordan and Charlevoix Township firefighters say they have debriefing sessions after the calls and rely on each other to get through the aftereffects. They also lean on a local ministerial association for assistance. Family support, and the special understanding that comes from spouses who serve together, is essential to the recovery process.

“I think with the trauma there’s a blessing that you can share those experiences,” Kathy Drenth explains. “You can talk through it. You can keep your eye on each other. But the reality is that once you’re on a department and you’ve built those relationships, you can talk with anybody (in the department).”

The volunteer firefighters’ support network – both inside and outside the department – is essential to members’ ability to leave the incident behind them and return to their everyday lives.

“I’ve got to be a happy teacher or a happy administrator the next day,” Kathy Drenth says. “Everybody has a profession that they go back to so you have to be able to talk about things before you leave. You have to keep eyes on each other, so nobody feels isolated, nobody feels alone, nobody feels like they’re dealing with it all on their own.”

The fact that volunteer firefighters come from different backgrounds and hold a variety of jobs outside the department makes for an impressive group of problem solvers, each with special talents. The countless hours volunteers spend together in training sessions and on calls enhances their ability to work together in challenging situations.

“I know now that everyone has gifts,” Kathy Drenth explains. “I slowly figured out that helping people when it’s an emergency, when it’s somebody’s worst day, there are people with gifts who can step into that space and bring calm and order when everyone else is in chaos. And that’s a gift the brothers and sisters (of the volunteer fire departments) have.”

“That’s what gets me up in the morning,” Kathy Drenth adds. “How much can we prepare as a team so that a bad day for someone else goes more smoothly because we have put in the time and the energy and the knowledge and the best practices to really bring our best forward? … I think all of us are problem solvers. That’s one of those layers of gifts we all bring to the table. Everybody that we work with has this crazy ability to look at a situation and somehow use what they have or what they know or the tools available to them and make it better. I see all our department members as problem solvers, whether you’ve got 22 people who show up on a scene or you have four, you use what you have and what you know. And at the end of the day, it’s going to be better.”

The camaraderie within the department is part of what attracted Vern Grams, one of the youngest members, to the Charlevoix Township Fire Department. He’s one of 31 volunteers, including four divers.

“It’s nice to be a part of something bigger than just myself,” Vern says.

“It’s nice to come to a place where you are part of a team. We work as a team; we are a team. They want you to better yourself for everyone on the team.”

Attracting and retaining volunteer firefighters is a challenge facing departments from coast to coast. Finding individuals willing to commit to the rigorous training and unpredictable hours inherent to firefighting can be difficult. And some veteran volunteers find they need to step back due to personal or professional commitments or simply because of advancing age.

In Michigan, applicants to become volunteer firefighters must be at least 18, a U.S. citizen, have a high school diploma or GED, have a valid driver’s license, and pass a criminal background check. Applicants also undergo an interview, a drug screening, and a physical exam.

Firefighter training is intensive, with volunteers required to complete the same certifications as professional firefighters. In Michigan, volunteer firefighters must complete Firefighter I and II certifications at an approved training academy. Firefighter I includes 120 hours of class time over four months, followed by a grueling exam. Several hundred hours of additional training are needed to complete Firefighter II certification.  

In addition to being highly trained, volunteers are equipped with protective gear which can carry a hefty price tag. According to the NVFC, the cost to train and equip a firefighter can exceed $20,000.

“Just turnout gear, bunker pants, a helmet, hood, and coat can cost $5,000,” Chief Thorman says.

And then there’s the fire trucks and other lifesaving equipment which must be maintained and replaced as needed. The average lifespan for a fire truck is about 10 years. Departments like those in northern Michigan also need water rescue equipment like boats and rafts.

“Our biggest need is vehicle replacement,” explains Charlevoix Township Fire Department Chief Dan Thorp. “A fire engine is $800,000, a ladder truck is $1.8 million.”

Many volunteer fire departments operate on shoestring budgets and struggle to afford modern equipment, protective gear, and training programs. Both the East Jordan and Charlevoix Township departments say their local governments have been supportive of their annual funding requests. The East Jordan Fire Department’s operating budget is $276,000; the Charlevoix Township Fire Department’s operating budget is $323,000.

Both departments also work to secure additional funding through grants from local foundations as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program, the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program, and the United States Fire Administration (USFA).

Helping young firefighters find the right work-life balance is crucial to their wellbeing and longevity with the department. The desire to be at the station or out on extra calls can lead to personal and professional difficulty.

“You have to train the newer people to pump the brakes,” Chief Thorp says. “You need to prioritize your life correctly. If you let the job run your life, then you’re in trouble.”

But that level of commitment is what sets volunteer firefighters apart.

“When the tones drop, you don’t have to go, it’s a choice to go, it’s a dedication to your department and to your community,” Chief Thorp says. “I appreciate the effort and dedication that all the departments put in their community because I don’t know where we’d be if we didn’t have that dedication.”

The passion to serve and protect their friends and neighbors comes from a place of mutual respect and appreciation.  

“I think because we’re invested in our communities and we have lived here, most of us our whole lives, we know people intimately and they look at us when we show up on scene and you can hear it in what they say and watch the release of stress when they see us show up because they can say my kid is in fifth grade and I’ve seen you and I know you … that’s part of being invested in your community,” Kathy Drenth says. “If we didn’t have the love and respect from our community this job would be much, much harder.”

When a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished.  What he does after that is all in the line of work.

Edward F. Croker

Photos of the controlled training burn in Charlevoix with Charlevoix Township and East Jordan Fire Departments. Photos by Doug Julian.

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Jane Meade-Dean
Jane Meade-Dean
With over three decades of experience as a former newspaper reporter and college public relations officer, Jane has a knack for capturing the essence of intriguing people, places, and things. Jane hails from the scenic mountains of Southwest Virginia and is a proud graduate of The University of Virginia's College at Wise. Apart from her contributions to LLL, Jane serves as a freelance writer for two neighborhood magazines in Midland. Since relocating to Michigan in 2007, she has developed a deep appreciation for Michigan summers, craft beer, and the Michigan State Spartans. Jane's passion for storytelling and her love for the Mitten State shine through her engaging articles.
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